Crimson Tide: Storm Brewing Over Pakistan by Sherry Rehman

A regional storm is brewing, and Pakistan could well be at its centre.

As Pakistan faces off its darkest moment of terrorist challenge, citizens are asking how long they will have to wait for a consistent policy response from the state and government. The drumbeat and din are growing; the pressure to act is also upped by gunship helicopters and Air Force jets pounding previously untouched terror spots in the federally-administered tribal areas.

There is little disagreement in the policy community—or elsewhere, for that matter—that much of what Islamabad has to contend with is home-grown, complex, and not easily reversible. With the prolonged dialogue-dance between the government and the Pakistani Taliban, out-of-the-bottle genies such as proscribed terrorist groups are now claiming space as legitimate actors. This in itself represents a serious challenge to a state whose soldiers and law enforcement agencies stand confused. Their targets have now been recast as interlocutors for peace.

On March 18, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finally approved the National Internal Security Policy. This document estimates the threat to Pakistan as existential and assures that some coordination among Pakistan’s myriad security agencies is actually on the agenda. But whatever the policy’s merits or otherwise, violence-fatigued Pakistanis want to know whether and when the government will actually act decisivelyagainst terrorism. The scale of Pakistan’s internal threat seems hard to top for the harvest of blood it draws. But a number of global and regional conflict trends looming on the horizon look set to add to the toxic combination of conflict-triggers that, if unmitigated, could present a perfect storm for Pakistan.

Deus ex Machina

The new global unresponsiveness to weak states is a worry. Such countries will have no choice now but to rely on mining domestic resources—through taxing evasive elites, executing policy, and bridging governance gaps—to crutch and secure their future. Given its abiding models of patronage and dependence, Pakistan has much reason to worry on this score.

Pakistan has been a frontline state more than once in the last four decades. But much has changed since the first Afghan jihad. During the Cold War, security umbrellas for weak states were, arguably, in play from one bloc or another. Now, despite the Russian and Chinese projection of power in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the South China Sea, there is less and less American appetite for holding states together. The EU, too, is hunkered down for a global economic retreat. In the long run, this trend may be a positive for Pakistan, forcing its rent-seeking elites to come to terms with new realities. But in the short term, when the risk to stability is also determined by the robustness of public finances, the forecast is hardly sanguine.

Pakistan has much to factor in when evolving a strategic plan that absorbs current and projected shocks from violent conflict. The changing map of the Middle East is a prime example of fragmenting states: Syria’s rapid descent into disorder and balkanized Iraq’s inability to contain its growing conflict are both daily reminders of how quickly nations can lapse into anarchy. Iran’s new diplomatic confidence, backed by emerging infrastructural options for the region offered by the Chabahar Corridor, is another impending shift rebooting the strategic axis.

Closer to home, Tehran’s influence over Shia-dominated Herat and the Hazarajat, in conjunction with development efforts in Afghanistan, could well pay off political dividends in the vital ratcheting down of anti-Shia violence, but Islamabad’s changing priorities may scupper such potential gains. Recent shifts have seen Pakistan’s pipeline diplomacy with Tehran, for instance, flounder on the rocks of a new Middle Eastern tilt. More importantly, Islamabad’s quiet rebalancing toward Saudi priorities, limiting the crucial project of staying neutral in Syria, has compromised its policy of staying out of intra-Arab disputes. Jettisoning this neutrality risks new whirlwinds that will link Pakistan to re-emerging terrorist franchises embedded in layers of conflict. The worry is that Riyadh’s own internal stability will continue to be jealously guarded while conflict-vectors are sent to different shores, including our own.

As the principal player in Afghanistan, the American shadow on the regional map looms large as always, even in retreat. With shale gas coming online, the U.S. is looking at an energy-secure future by 2017, and so will likely hedge down its scale of bets on the changing global map. The responsibility to underwrite international stability will continue to fall on Washington’s shoulders, but it will certainly re-evaluate and limit the military and economic capital it expends both in South and Central Asia and in the Middle East.

Shrinking American resources and dwindling Congressional interest in foreign interventions will shape responses in many global hotspots. The U.S. secretary of defense has already stated clear plans for the Pentagon to reduce the size of the U.S. Army to World War II levels by 2019 (Its army may become leaner and meaner, but for some decades to come, the U.S. will remain the principal global hegemon that can project military power faster and harder than anyone else.). Proposed U.S. investments, however, will focus on special operations, cyber war, and rebalancing the American position in Asia toward the Far East.

Given this backdrop, the limits of Pakistan’s influence in its immediate neighbourhood have registered on regional players, including the U.S. The attempted shift in Pakistan’s policy—to publically eschew power brokering in Afghanistan—does not sit as sustainable with Indian and Iranian actors in Afghanistan who see Pakistan as a proxy backer for the Taliban and other Pakhtun militant forces. Yet over the last few years, Islamabad, under growing civilian influence, has tried to steer a less partisan course, and made all the right noises to bring Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Northern Alliance players into the formal diplomatic agenda. The motive driving this initiative was to buffer Pakistan from the predictable shocks, as well as the unintended ones, of the Afghan transition this year.

This shift in the balance with Afghanistan, if maintained through crucial times, is also a perfectly good argument for staying out of the vexed Afghan political reconciliation game beyond a point. The more compelling argument is that Pakistan has to look at its own crises: the strategic backyard is at home, not next door, and it is on fire. But given Islamabad’s new enthusiasm to build accommodations with militant groups, one of the new challenges muddling the policy discourse in Pakistan is a swing in the public narrative which will have serious consequences in shrinking space for progressive politics and building consensus against terrorists.

Over the several weeks that the government’s talks with the Pakistani Taliban have dragged on, extremists who were at the public margins have brought their postures and arguments centre stage. In this new public sanitization, the votaries of terror push a dangerous conflation between the politics of reconciliation in Kabul with a similar dynamic in Islamabad. Strategically muddled in this swirling pot of policy confusion, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are not just seen as units building operational momentum together, which they often are, but as groups that merit the same policy responses. This reasoning puts Pakistan squarely in the same box as Afghanistan, with equal imperatives to make peace with militants who are romanticized as alienated locals. There is growing agreement even among conservatives that nothing can be more detrimental to taking back the state’s writ in Pakistan than a deliberate blurring of the two trajectories.

In Pakistan’s Balochistan province, the development of the Gwadar deep-seaport as a 21st-century doorway into the Middle East is supplemented by China’s growing interest in infrastructure development and trade access through Pakistan. However, any development in the province will depend intimately on security metrics. In the absence of requisite governance and security reform, Balochistan is likely to remain a sectarian-militant hotbed beyond 2014.

While the appointment of a Baloch nationalist leader as chief minister has quieted Baloch discontent somewhat, the fact remains that Pakistan’s largest province by landmass continues to be racked by lawlessness and violence, even though attacks on pro-government tribal militias have plateaued, only to be replaced by routine disappearances and the alleged illegal detention of Baloch nationalists. The abduction of journalists and workers not only threatens the fabric of Pakistan’s citizenry, but also carries the potential to unleash a wave of fierce judicial activism, evinced by the march on Islamabad by Baloch families, that may throw civil-judicial relations into renewed confrontation.

The Brink, Again

Despite Islamabad abjuring interference in Kabul, Afghanistan’s stability will remain crucial for managing increasingly internally-risked Pakistan’s unfolding landscape of terrorism. Pakistan has neither been able to secure its border with this troubled neighbour nor been able to resist the terrorist onslaught at home. From Peshawar to Karachi, violent gangs and murder franchises that kill civilians, soldiers, and law enforcement agents indiscriminately and target vulnerable minorities, operate in both urban metropolises and tribal backwaters. Despite the uptick in violence, the view that talking to terrorists will change the terror dynamic, or buy time, is hard to shake in decision-making circles.

Conceptual divides still fog the strategic terrain. The idea that the U.S. military drawdown from Afghanistan will inherently bring a degree of stability to the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan is flawed. Contrary to many popular local projections, there will be little reversion to pre-9/11 stability in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. The expectation that field commanders will lower some of their guns is not misplaced, as battle fatigue itself may turn some insurgents into reconcilables, but there is no guarantee that the violence will cease. This view also ignores the quantum of entrenched fighters within Pakistan and, absent a political solution, the high risk posed by intra-Afghan fault lines.

After the collapse of the Doha process, the prospects for a political solution to a conflict where the Afghan Taliban see little advantage in standing down are dim. A revival of the Afghan political process can only happen with a post-election bargain made wholly by the new Afghan leadership. Karzai’s attempts to talk directly with some members of the Afghan Shura are a step in that direction and may give a reconstituted Afghan High Peace Council reason to add new chairs to its table. Much also depends on the new president’s ability to conduct business with stakeholders and spoilers alike.

As the Americans calibrate options for what to leave behind in Afghanistan and what to destroy or ship out, the drawdown clock has driven many decisions. The unlikely “zero option” for a residual NATO presence is clearly an open file now, only because it has to be after Karzai’s flat refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the Americans. But it is certainly not the zero-sum conversation it appears to be. U.S. President Barack Obama has at least agreed to show some flexibility in keeping the status-of-forces agreement for Afghanistan on the table until a new president is sworn in. So while the issue of an unsigned security agreement could be resolved by summer, after two possible rounds of an Afghan election, its foggy timeline has added fresh uncertainty to a transition that could lead to another Afghan civil war.

Even once the security agreement gets signed, and some instrument for continued Western economic and military support is formalized, the international commitment for bridging the financing and stemming the security meltdown of Afghanistan will dwindle. According to estimates, some 90 percent of the Afghan budget is paid for by foreign aid. For the time being, no one knows who will pay for Afghanistan once the war economy ramps down.

The Afghan military’s fragility also remains an issue. The one institution pivotal to the future of Afghanistan’s security remains dangerously under-resourced and vulnerable to growing attrition. Outside formal meeting rooms, most experts caution that the Afghan National Security Forces will be largely unable to secure swathes of Afghan ground from coordinated militant onslaughts. So for the West, there is less will to be in Afghanistan or to police an imploding Middle East, but the interest in preserving gains and denying space to Al Qaeda to regroup again in Afghanistan is still a valid talking point.

What post-election political accords and realignments will mean for the future of Afghan women—particularly in the south and east—in terms of daily negotiations and the Taliban’s moral policing is another worry. The election itself is a transition Afghanistan has actually not experienced more than once before, and managing post-poll conflicts and contests will be challenging.

America’s own National Intelligence Estimate predicts a suboptimal future for Afghanistan, with volatility going up exponentially as NATO reduces its combat mission. After 12 years of blood, sweat, and cash spent by a global force, coalition gains continue to look fragile and worryingly reversible. The security vacuum after the U.S. exit, whether some troops stay behind or don’t, will affect vast tracts of Afghan territory as it becomes hospitable for warlords and insurgents.

Arc of Insecurity

The transnational nature of the conflict in Afghanistan is acutely pivotal for Pakistan. The Afghan Jihad spillover—in the form of refugees, narcotics, arms, heightened volatility, the unimpeded mobility of global and local militants—has already altered Pakistan’s social and political fabric. The costs to Islamabad of winning the war but losing the peace in Afghanistan during the last proxy war against the Soviet Union have been incalculable. This time the undefeated party, the Afghan Taliban, is capable of being predatory in ways many states are still unable to fathom. Like the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, too, are made stronger by a borderless resurgence. Even though the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas have seen degradation in formal Al Qaeda’s core capacities and cadres, its affiliates and offshoots now challenge Pakistan’s stability.

In the new arc of insecurity shattering Muslim countries, regroupings now dominate in Syria, Mali, Libya, Iraq and Lebanon among others. The interconnectedness of global capital markets and technology will service and sustain the financing of this terror surge. One of the key trends that fuel insecurity and aid Al Qaeda regroupings will be weak state controls and porous borders that allow gangs to evade capture, and exercise disturbing levels of independence. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, for instance, already uses the Sahel region for safe haven in much the same way that mercenaries use the Pakistan-Afghanistan border for refuge, space, and coordination.

For some perspective on the scale of the challenge, it is useful to remember that even while the International Security Assistance Force was formally in charge of Afghanistan’s border areas, the coalition was limited in bringing Kabul’s writ to bear at vital checkpoints. Border management has never been a strong point for either Afghanistan or Pakistan. With Afghanistan insisting that the international border is nothing more than the “expired Durand Line”, Pakistani policymakers may well reach out to Kabul to change this dynamic and harden border protocols. But it is likely that just as Karzai refused Pakistan’s overtures for raising border checkpoints, the post-Karzai regime will be no different.

The re-emergence and flow of narcotics from Afghanistan to Pakistan is another crisis Islamabad may well have to grapple with alone. Although the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s efforts in Afghanistan were intensive, the gains were patchy. Despite sitting on a border where container traffic was protected by warlords trading in narcotics, NATO never formally included interdiction protocols into its charter. Today, opium is Afghanistan’s prime cash crop again and Pakistan its main traffic artery.

In anticipation of heightened volatility next door, the refugee inflow has already begun. Pakistan still has camps, catchment areas for terrorist recruitment and contraband trade, for Afghan refugees; and official numbers offer scant guide to the scale of the influx Pakistan has had to absorb since the last war. Economic pressures are only part of the story. Karachi, for instance, has become the largest Pakhtun city in the world—bigger than Peshawar and Kabul combined—skewing demographics, social spaces, and politics in ways that deprivation or ideology could not. Some officials say, in fact, that Pakistan should brace for a worst-case scenario that may unfold as early as July in which about 1 to 2 million refugees from Afghanistan are expected to cross the border before winter. Despite UNHCR’s presence in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, the first-stage “burden share” alone will be both colossal and disruptive.

Unseen Ways

Conflict and conflict management in Pakistan are set to become increasingly unconventional both in terms of non-state actors and state responses. The footprint of private contractors in conflicted, transitional zones has not diminished over the last 10 years despite their lack of accountability to institutions that govern foreign relations between states. Post-occupation Iraq has outsourced its military capability to private contractors and mercenaries. Afghanistan, too, hosts a large multipurpose force of advisors, diplomatic security agents, and defense contractors. Weak states will suffer the most from the use of such private armies. Pakistan’s conventionally trained and equipped military and law enforcement agencies are struggling to scale up to the altered nature of the asymmetrical beast, but gains are hard won and easy to undo.

State sovereignty has already become a deeply contested battleground, both notionally and materially. Although Pakistan has, since 2012, begun to curtail and roll back foreign contractor ingress, the incapacity of domestic law enforcement has triggered a huge demand for contractors who provide protection from terrorists. This trend will likely continue to advance in the next 20 years.

Globally, state action with indeterminate or ‘gray’ legal status will also become a disturbing new norm. Such action includes the use of drones, often for unauthorized surveillance and targeting. Even if this ramps down as a phenomenon in Pakistan’s airspace, it will be the prime tool of kinetic choice in arsenals around the world to combat terrorism. Israel already employs these unmanned aerial vehicles at multiple levels, and Yemen is a target for continuous U.S. drone strikes. The U.S. is developing faster and smarter drones to compensate for a reduced troop footprint. Other big players, including China, are not far behind. In Pakistan, drones have already roiled national politics in the street and hobbled political capacity to manage a cohesive, strategic message against terrorism.

Batten the Hatches

By no means is the conflict in Pakistan the result of contagion from other countries. In fact, it is blowback from the covert, authoritarian policymaking past when Pakistan supported proxy wars in Afghanistan and launched misadventures like Kargil. Today, as a democratic government struggles to face the scale of the terrorist onslaught at home, the numbers tell a sobering story. The National Internal Security Policy cites Pakistan as the most terror-hit country in the world. Just the number of suicide attacks, from November 2007 to 2013, stands at 358—the highest anywhere in the world. According to the U.S. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism, Pakistan absorbed more terrorist attacks in 2012 than Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Pakistan’s experience, policy is hard to execute and change even harder to process. The context of this argument is not static. The consolidation of democracy remains a moment of opportunity, and mainstream consensus on key policy drivers—shifting the relationship with India from one of conflict and crisis management to one of peace and trade; moving away from the ball and chain of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and avoiding power brokering there by seeking no favourites—is crucial. This can actually infuse dynamism into foreign policy again because it has the potential for tangible and historic public gains. The good news is that these policy corrections have remained strategically consistent across two successive civilian governments in Islamabad. This path must not change.

But torn between existential choices, Pakistan’s crucial social buy-in needed to counter terrorism has been compromised: first, by mixed messages in Parliament; and now by a policy document that still seems like a work in progress. On this crucial issue, Islamabad must do all it can to ensure that it does not find itself challenged by partisan divides at any step. The government was given space for “talking” to non-state adversaries—and this option has largely exhausted itself as a policy tool.

The expectation that some Waziristan tribes will splinter down the middle by the lure of an amnesty should not shroud the big picture. Pakistan is no longer at the stage where time favours the law. Comparing Pakistan to Afghanistan, as some Pakistani politicians have done, doesn’t wash: there’s no occupation army exiting here, and the nature and scale of the terrorist threat is very different. The days of muddling through on key strategic priorities are done. Or they will have to be if Pakistan is to survive the coming storm.

Rehman has served as a federal minister and as Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. She is the president of Jinnah Institute, a think tank based in Islamabad.

This article was carried as this week’s Newsweek Pakistan Cover Story.